Mystery of plane’s disappearance in 1968 still unsolved
Monday, October 24, 2005
Editor’s note: Following is the first story in a three-part series about the 1968 disappearance of a National Center for Atmospheric Research plane.
REDRIDGE – As Copper Country mysteries go, the disappearance of a National Center for Atmospheric Research plane 37 years ago remains one of the more intriguing ones.
On Oct. 23, 1968, a three-man NCAR research crew embarked in the morning from Madison, Wis., to collect water radiation temperatures in Lake Superior. The plane made its last contact with the Houghton County Memorial Airport about 12:30 p.m. that sunny fall day.
Not long afterward, some residents in the Redridge-Freda area reported seeing a flash in the sky. The plane and its three occupants were never seen or heard from again.
Lester Zinser, a pilot for NCAR in 1968, was involved in the search for the men: Research pilots Gordon Jones and Robert Carew and University of Wisconsin graduate student Velayudh Krishna.
Jones and Carew were in their early 40s while Krishna, an Indian national, was in his middle 20s. Zinser, who retired from the NCAR 21 years ago and now resides in Thornton, Colo., said the case remains a puzzle to him.
“It was a very routine flight,” said Zinser. “The weather was perfect and there was nothing on board the plane that could have caused (an explosion). I knew Gordon Jones and Robert Carew very well. They were professionals who had done this type of work on numerous occasions. Something went wrong.”
Jones and Carew were former military pilots and had conducted the project before. The work was performed at an altitude of approximately 1,000 feet. NCAR spokesmen said their planes only flew the mission when skies were clear and that assignments were called off when fog banks or heavy clouds were present.
The 1968 search, coordinated by a six-member team from NCAR headquarters in Denver, was accomplished with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard. The search team also included deputies from the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department.
Jim Ruotsala was the chief marine officer for the sheriff’s department at the time and recently talked about the case.
“They had the latest in sonar equipment but still didn’t come up with anything concrete,” he recalled. “There was a seat cushion and some other small parts … but it was never determined if they came from the plane. It was very puzzling.”
The effort was centered in the Freda, Beacon Hill and Redridge locations and even included a land search of the surrounding area.
“We covered just about all the bases,” recalled then Houghton County Sheriff John Wiitanen. “But we never came up with anything we could link to that plane.”
Two searches yielded little information about missing plane
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Editor’s note: Following is the second story in a three-part series on the 1968 disappearance of a National Center for Atmospheric Research plane.
HOUGHTON – The search for a missing National Center for Atmospheric Research plane over Lake Superior in 1968 triggered what today would amount to a major media event.
The initial search for the plane, lost on Oct. 23, 1968, was cut short after a week or so by inclement weather. But when the NCAR resumed the search for the Queen Air 80 Beechcraft model lost over Lake Superior late the following summer, it came prepared with the latest in modern technology.
The late Gary Beauchamp was a deputy for the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department at the time and took part in both the 1968 and 1969 search efforts. He remembered the preparations taken for the second search.
“They chartered the Isle Royale Queen II, loaded it up with the the most modern technology on hand and hired a large crew,” Beauchamp recalled in an interview a few years ago. “It was a very organized search effort.”
The second search began Sept. 2, 1969, with what was then an unusual amount of media coverage. A television crew from Marquette was on hand and there were at least three newspapers, including the Milwaukee Sentinel, monitoring the search. Lester Zinser, a pilot for the NCAR, was in charge of the search. In an interview a few years ago, he said he fully expected to find the plane.
“Unlike the year before, the weather in 1969 was ideal. We had all the state-of-the-art-equipment … I really thought we would find the plane,” Zinser commented.
The Isle Royale Queen, a 60-foot craft, was owned and operated by Ward Grosnick Sr. of Calumet. On board was a sonar unit and underwater cameras.
Two technicians were brought in from an underwater research firm in New York and there were five NCAR employees, including Zinser, also present.
Four Michigan Tech University students were hired to assist in the project. The Houghton County Sheriff’s Department also played a key role in the search, with Sheriff John Wiitanen coordinating local efforts.
The search was concentrated in a rectangular area three by five miles along the coast of Lake Superior near Freda, believed to be where the plane was lost. But again, nothing of consequence was found.
Ward Grosnick Jr., then 16 years old, recalled going out on the Isle Royale II some days with his father during the search. He said there was an “air of secrecy” about the whole mission. “They didn’t want a whole lot coming out about it (search).” he said recently. “They searched hard, there were some long days out there. But they didn’t find much of anything.”
The search was called off after almost a full month. Only some small items, including a seat belt believed to be from the missing craft, were found. That joined the list of items from the year before, which included a seat cushion, some foam and part of a glare shield (aircraft dashboard).
Ironically enough, some of the most conclusive evidence was found by local residents years afterward.
Families of plane crash victims still seeking answers
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Editor’s note: Following is the final story of a three-part series on the 1968 disappearance of a National Center for Atmospheric Research plane.
HOUGHTON – While several airplanes have disappeared over Lake Superior through the years, there is no reasonable answer as to why a National Center for Atmospheric Research aircraft vanished virtually into thin air in October of 1968.
Lester Zinser, who flew the very same mission for the NCAR during his career, said Flight 303D originating out of Madison, Wis., on Oct. 23, 1968, was one of the more routine flights conducted by the government agency.
It really couldn’t have been a more routine mission,” he said recently. “You had experienced pilots out there on an ideal weather day. I was shocked when I heard the flight was missing.”
Jim Ruotsala, the chief marine officer for the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department in 1968, and later sheriff, took part in both searches. He believed the plane would be found before too long.
“I always thought the plane ended up in a fairly shallow area of the lake. We found some small parts during the first search and some the second time,” he said. “A lot of those parts were washed up during storms or broke loose during the winter when the lake froze over.”
The late John Wiitanen, who was the sheriff at the time of the incident, may have had the most plausible explanation about why the craft has never been found.
“I think the plane went down in the lake and got lodged in an underwater valley formation. That part of the lake has a lot of those formations,” Wiitanen said in an interview in 1990. “The parts (of the plane) get pried loose and wash up on shore every once in awhile.”
In the aftermath of the disappearance, several theories surfaced. There was talk that the plane flew into a restricted no-fly zone and was shot down by Air Force planes on patrol. While that idea would appear far-fetched, it has been mentioned by some people involved in the search.
“I can’t say that was what happened, but I really don’t have any other theories,” said the late Gary Beauchamp, who was a deputy with the sheriff’s department in 1968 and later sheriff. “Something strange happened out there that day.”
NTSB Identification: CHI69A0044
14 CFR Part 91 General Aviation
Event occurred Wednesday, October 23, 1968 in HOUGHTON, MI
Aircraft: BEECH 65-80, registration: N303D
FILE DATE LOCATION AIRCRAFT DATA INJURIES FLIGHT PILOT DATA F S M/N PURPOSE
3-4818 68/10/23 NR.HOUGHTON,MICH BEECH 65-80 CR- 3 0 0 MISCELLANEOUS COMMERCIAL, AGE 45, 7100 TIME – 1340 N303D PX- 0 0 0 OTHER TOTAL HOURS, 140 IN TYPE, DAMAGE-DESTROYED OT- 0 0 0 INSTRUMENT RATED. TYPE OF ACCIDENT PHASE OF OPERATION MISSING AIRCRAFT,NOT RECOVERED UNKNOWN/NOT REPORTED PROBABLE CAUSE(S) MISCELLANEOUS – UNDETERMINED REMARKS- ATMOSPHERIC RESEARCH FLT.ACFT MISSING OVER LK SUPERIOR.TIME,ACFT DAMAGE,INJURY INDEX PRESUMED
Flight remains as puzzling as ever
Some remain hopeful that after 40 years they will figure out what really happened
REDRIDGE – By all accounts, the weather on Oct. 23, 1968, was perfect for the National Center for Atmospheric Research plane to collect water radiation temperatures in Lake Superior.
The three-man NCAR team on board the Queen Air 80 Beachcraft plane made contact with the Houghton County Memorial Airport around 12:30 p.m. that sunny day 40 years ago — and then disappeared into the lore of Lake Superior mysteries.
Although some some residents in the Redridge-Freda area reported seeing a flash in the sky, the plane and its three occupants were never seen or heard from again.
Lester Zinser, a pilot for NCAR in 1968, was involved in the the search for the three men: research pilots Gordon Jones and Robert Carew; and University of Wisconsin graduate student Velayudh Krishna, an Indian national. Jones and Carew were in their early 40s, while Krishna was in his middle 20s.
Zinser, who retired from the NCAR some 25 years ago, said the case remains a puzzle to him.
“It was a very routine flight,” said Zinser, who now resides in Thornton, Col. “The weather was perfect and there was nothing on board the plane that could have caused (an explosion). I knew Gordon Jones and Robert Carew very well. They were professionals who had done this type of work on numerous occasions. Something went wrong.”
Jones and Carew were former military pilots and had conducted the project before. The work was performed at approximately an altitude of 1,000 feet. NCAR spokesmen said their planes only flew the mission when skies were clear and that assignments were called off when fog banks or heavy clouds were present.
The 1968 search, coordinated by a six-member team from NCAR headquarters in Denver, was done with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard. The search team also included deputies from the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department. Jim Ruotsala was the chief marine officer for the sheriff’s department at the time and recalled the case.
“They had sonar equipment but still didn’t come up with anything concrete,” he recalled. “There was a seat cushion and some other small parts …. but it was never determined if they came from that particular plane.”
The effort was centered in the Freda, Beacon Hill and Redridge area and even included a land search of the surrounding area.
“We covered just about all the bases,” recalled then Houghton County Sheriff John Wiitanen. “But we never came up with anything we could link to that plane.”
While using the county’s amphibian vehicle during the search, Ruotsala and a couple of other searchers narrowly averted being swamped by rough waters in Lake Superior.
As fate would have it, winter made an early appearance that fall. The search had to be cut short after a week because of blustery and snowy weather.
“I think I was there was only three or four days before the weather got bad,” Zinser said. “We had to call it off.”
Wiitanen always contended the search was conducted in the wrong area.
“I thought they should have been concentrating in a spot about ten miles west of there,” he said many years later. “But the weather turned bad in a hurry that year and we just didn’t have the chance to get out to that location.”
Another NCAR team, this time led by Zinser, returned to the area eleven months later to resume the search. But this effort would not be any more successful than the first.
The second search
On Sept. 22, 1969, the second search for the missing aircraft began with high hopes.
The NCAR chartered the Isle Royale Queen II and loaded it with the most modern technolgy available, according to the late Gary Beauchamp, then a deputy for the sheriff’s department.
“They (NCAR) had just about everything on board and they had underwater radar technicians brought in from New York,” Beauchamp recalled in a 1995 interview. “It was very well-planned.”
Zinser – one of five NCAR officials on hand – also hired four Michigan Tech students to help out. He firmly believed the plane would be found.
“Unlike the year before, the weather was ideal for the second search,” he said. “We had the most sophisticated sonar and underwater equipment with us. I felt it would be just a matter of time.”
The Isle Royale Queen II, a 60-foot craft, was owned and operated by Ward Grosnick of Calumet. Grosnick was an experienced captain and knew that region of Lake Superior well.
A number of media outlets covered the event, including two newspapers, two radio stations and WLUC-TV from Marquette. In those long-ago days, it amounted to almost a media circus.
“You have to remember that back then …. you just didn’t see that kind of coverage,” said Dick Storm, then the news director at WMPL Radio. “That was usually reserved for a visit from the governor or some other dignitary.”
The search was centered around a rectangular area three-by-five miles along the coast of Lake Superior near Freda.
Witnesses in the area had recalled seeing a flash around the time of the plane’s last contact with the airport. It was even speculated the aircraft may have scraped an old mine smokestack in nearby Redridge. The stack, which is approximately 250 feet high, still stands.
And two teen-aged girls later said they saw an aircraft crash into the lake near McLain State Park the day of the event.
Zinser said the possibility of the plane hitting the smokestack was looked into.
“We had heard that theory and had someone take a look for paint or scrape marks,” he noted. “But there wasn’t any evidence to support it. Besides the plane would have been flying at about 1,000 feet.”
The month-long search was called off with almost no conclusive evidence found. Some small items, including a seat belt, was added to the list of items (seat cushion, some foam and part of a glare shield) from the 1968 search.
“It was very disappointing for everyone involved,” said Wiitanen, whose department also aided in the effort. “It was like the plane just vanished into thin air.”
Ironically enough, some of the most conclusive evidence regarding the plane was found years later.
In 1972, the late Frank Morin of Freda found a section of airplane fuselage along the shore of Lake Superior.
His son, Jim, said his father contacted the sheriff’s department about the part immediately. It wasn’t picked up until the summer of 1976 after an article about the incident appeared in the Daily Mining Gazette.
“A couple of deputies came out and picked it up,” Jim Morin said, adding the part was later returned.
The 1976 newspaper article concerned the discovery of a sizeable part of a plane that summer near Rockhouse Point. The part was identified as a rear horizontal stabilizer and was the same color as the missing plane.
Mark Peters, then a deputy for the sheriff’s department, accompanied Houghton City Police Chief Jim Janda in an aerial search in Janda’s plane.
“We even took the plane part and suspended it into the lake to see how far we could see down there,” Peters said. “It was visible about 30 feet down. But we didn’t see anything that resembled it.”
In 1997, recreational divers found what looked like plane parts in the general area. But officials from the National Transportation Safety Board decided there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant a further search.
Of course, there has always been speculation on what caused the plane to disappear that day 40 years ago.
The theories ranged from the plane being shot down by the U.S. Air Force because it accidentally flew into a no-fly zone to it encountered a UFO. In 1968, the Cold War was still being fought and K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base was only 120 miles away.
Witnesses remember seeing a number of military personnel in the area soon after the plane’s disappearance.
“A couple of friends and I were down by the lake and they (the military) told us they were looking for the plane,” said Paulette Morin. “They told us to leave and they were very business-like about it.”
Of course, the UFO theory is always a popular one since Lake Superior is a region where strange things are sometimes seen. But Ruotsala discounts it.
“I think that’s totally bunk,” the former sheriff said. “There’s a rational reason the plane disappeared and I think it will come out some day.”
Forty years later, the mystery of what happened to the NCAR flight remains as puzzling as ever. Zinser, now 86, remains hopeful of a conclusion.
“I know the family members certainly would want to know, ” he said. “I know I would because I knew all three of those men … they were my friends.”
Wiitanen, who died in 1995, believed the fate of the aircraft would be discovered, “probably by accident.”
“The big lake gives up its secrets very reluctantly. Some day, a large part (of the plane) will wash up on shore. Then, maybe, we’ll know what really happened that day.”